Georgia vs. LSU: Final thoughts (and a prediction) on the 2022 SEC Championship
Thanks a lot, A&M.
Instead of having 2 teams with Playoff odds duking it out in the SEC Championship, Texas A&M decided to finally show up and hand LSU a humbling third loss to take some of the air out of Saturday.
OK, let me rephrase that. Thanks a lot, LSU.
It’s the Tigers who lacked gap discipline and made critical mistakes on the road to prevent us from getting an SEC Championship with 2 teams with Playoff paths.
But I digress. After all, it is still the most challenging conference championship to win in the sport. The winner of this game played in a national championship 15 of the past 16 years. You don’t luck into an SEC title.
Let’s dig into some final thoughts on Saturday’s showdown:
1. Georgia still has a lot to play for, and Kirby Smart will remind his team of that
Yes, I believe UGA already has a Playoff berth locked up. The selection committee put the Dawgs at No. 1 even after Michigan trounced Ohio State in Columbus. Why? Well, the Dawgs have 4 decisive wins against teams currently ranked in the Playoff Top 25 while Michigan only has 2. That matters.
This game matters a lot to Georgia. It should. There’s a No. 1 seed on the line. Win on Saturday and the Dawgs will have all but locked up a semifinal game back at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Picture the fan disparity between Georgia and USC for a game played in Atlanta. Would it be 90-10? UGA fans wouldn’t even need to stay in a hotel.
Of course, that’s not on the mind of Smart and the Dawgs. More important is what last year’s squad experienced in this game. Georgia got trucked in the second half by Alabama. Remember, the Dawgs only have 1 SEC title since the SEC began its run of dominance in 2006, and it was the 2017 squad … who then got beat by Alabama in the title game.
There’s pride in that, and there’s also pride in going 13-0. That’s something that’s never been done in Georgia history. To think that the Dawgs could do that after losing 15 (!) players to the NFL Draft is truly absurd. That’s not something that we’re talking about as it relates to this specific game because Smart’s team is now plenty experienced, but it does speak to just how invincible the Dawgs appear to be right now.
If UGA takes care of business on Saturday, don’t lose sight of that.
2. Why it’s not easy to just assume LSU is going to send a ton of pressure
A couple of things.
Should LSU play loose and feel like there’s nothing to lose knowing that it isn’t going to the Playoff? Sure. You’d hope to see creativity from Brian Kelly. Maybe that means some aggressive play-calling with downfield shots, perhaps we get a few extra 4th down attempts and if Kelly really wants to empty the bag, we could see a surprise onside kick attempt. I’m all for that.
What I’m not necessarily sold on is the belief that LSU’s defense should be blitz-heavy. Against a 25-year-old quarterback with 3 years in the system, that might not be the best plan of attack. Stetson Bennett’s poise has been at an elite level. He hasn’t taken a sack since the Vanderbilt game on Oct. 15, yet he’s still thrown 5 interceptions during those 5 games. Bennett’s issue isn’t that he’s forced into bad decisions because of pressure. It’s that he tries to force throws into tight windows:
— Gator Guy Billy (@GatorGuyBilly) October 29, 2022
Ideally, LSU defensive coordinator Matt House finds ways to get Harold Perkins and BJ Ojulari in spots where they can generate pressure without needing to send 5-6 rushers. Perkins has been tremendous as a spy, but it’s fair to wonder if that’s the best plan of attack knowing that Bennett isn’t necessarily a high-volume scrambler.
Also remember that if you send a ton of pressure at Bennett, that means you can’t prioritize covering the likes of Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington. Those guys can absolutely take over a game. Additionally, we know that Georgia has an elite pass-catching running back in Kenny McIntosh, who would love to take advantage of those LSU blitzes if he’s going to be uncovered into the flat.
Todd Monken has been excellent at making those in-game adjustments, as has House. That’s why both were Broyles Award semifinalists (Monken is a finalist). A great chess match awaits.
3. Stetson Bennett’s numbers vs. AP Top 25 teams the past 2 years have been _________.
Here’s the game log:
- 2021 vs. No. 8 Arkansas: 7-for-11, 72 yards (6.5 YPA), 0 TDs, 0 INTs
- 2021 at No. 18 Auburn: 14-for-21, 231 yards (11 YPA), 2 TDs, 0 INTs
- 2021 vs. No. 11 Kentucky: 14-for-20, 250 yards (12.5 YPA), 3 TDs, 0 INTs
- 2021 vs. No. 4 Alabama (SEC Championship): 29-for-48, 340 yards (7.1 YPA), 3 TDs, 2 INTs
- 2021 vs. No. 2 Michigan (Playoff semifinal): 20-for-30, 313 yards (10.4 YPA), 3 TDs, 0 INTs
- 2021 vs. No. 1 Alabama (national championship): 17-for-26, 224 yards (8.6 YPA), 2 TDs, 0 INTs
- 2022 vs. No. 11 Oregon (in Atlanta): 25-for-31, 368 yards (11.9 YPA), 2 TDs, 0 INTs
- 2022 vs. No. 2 Tennessee: 17-for-25, 257 yards (10.3 YPA), 2 TDs, 0 INTs
- Average vs. ranked teams: 17.9-for-26.5, 257 yards (9.7 YPA), 2.1 TDs, 0.3 INTs
That’s right. The Tennessee game was essentially the typical performance you’d see from Bennett against a ranked for these past 2 years. Go figure that last year’s SEC Championship was the only time that he threw an interception in 8 starts vs. ranked foes these past 2 seasons. I’d actually argue he was mostly good in that game, too.
It’s funny because about a year ago, there was still this debate about whether Bennett was the thing holding UGA back from winning a title. We’ve got enough evidence to show that’s clearly not the case. If anything, his game gets better against elite competition. I mean, Bennett had multiple TD passes without an interception in 6 of those 8 games.
Granted, it helps that UGA has often played with a lead because of the No. 1 defense in America. Then again, Bennett’s national championship comeback effort with a perfect 4th quarter speaks for itself.
So does his résumé against ranked foes.
4. I can go both ways with how this plays out with Jayden Daniels
Daniels is dealing with an ankle injury that he suffered on that bizarre 2-point conversion decision by Kelly. His status is unknown though I’d be surprised if he sat. Assuming Daniels is a go, how mobile will he be? And if he’s not, what does that mean for the LSU offense?
It can mean a few things.
It can mean that against the nation’s top-scoring defense, LSU’s quarterback is a sitting duck. We could see situations in which UGA’s pressure is too much for Daniels, who is usually able to escape and pick up positive yardage to keep the offense on schedule. It wouldn’t be surprising if those designed runs were few and far between, which doesn’t sound like a positive development for an already depleted LSU rushing attack against the nation’s best run defense.
Alternatively, go back to when Daniels was working through his issues in the first half of the season. His problem was that he’d default to his legs too much instead of trusting his receivers to make a play in coverage. If Daniels doesn’t have his legs available, could that actually work in LSU’s favor by taking more chances with that deep group of pass-catchers? That’s also possible.
I’d expect to see a whole lot of Kelee Ringo on Kayshon Boutte. Ringo doesn’t allow much separation, but he does like to take chances. Could that be a possible area where LSU tries to roll the dice with a limited Daniels? I could see that, especially after we just saw Georgia Tech repeatedly try to pick on the highly regarded NFL prospect (Ringo had a much better second half after a rough start).
Daniels has been at his best when he keeps his eyes downfield and he attacks. He’s actually been better when he’s been willing to take some of those sacks because it means he’s letting plays develop, like we first saw against Florida.
393 Total Yards
Jayden Daniels was fully unlocked in The Swamp. pic.twitter.com/tjAc1NSvVp
— OTOP (@OneTeamOnePod) October 16, 2022
He took 4 sacks against Ole Miss and 6 against Alabama while also delivering arguably 2 of his 3 best performances of the year. Of course, he also had his legs available.
This shouldn’t be a game in which Daniels is afraid to make mistakes. You aren’t going to beat Georgia unless you can connect on those home-run plays, which Tennessee couldn’t. Hence, why it was so lopsided. Daniels only has 10 passes of 30 yards all season. UGA has actually been somewhat vulnerable defending some of those chunk passing plays with 16 plays of 30 yards allowed (No. 65 in FBS) and 10 such passes of 40 yards this year (No. 100 in FBS).
Regardless of Daniels’ ankle, LSU needs its quarterback to air it out in order to have a shot.
5. What if Brian Kelly’s unique Year 1 included wins vs. Kirby Smart and Nick Saban?
I’m old enough to remember when Kelly couldn’t beat elite coaches because he just simply wasn’t on their level. When Kelly left for LSU, I was told by bitter Notre Dame fans that it was a Kelly issue, and not an issue with a program that had some limiting factors surrounding it.
Before Kelly came to LSU, he was 0-4 against Saban and Smart. Those games were played in Dallas, Miami, South Bend and Athens. They happened in September, December and January. Any time, any place, Kelly’s team was at a disadvantage against those 2. Why? Talent.
At LSU, we know that’s not lacking. Some of that is Kelly’s doing because of what he did to keep players Ed Orgeron-era players from transferring, and he also did an exceptional job of recruiting players out of the portal. He finally had a team who could look Alabama in the eye and play a full 60 minutes (and then some).
The question is if Kelly can double down on the Alabama win by avenging those 2 losses to Smart. Or rather, if this Year 1 roster is already capable of pulling off that feat. That would pour some cold water on the hot take that Notre Dame’s 2 wins against AP Top 5 teams since 1999 were entirely because of Kelly not being an elite recruiter and developer of talent.
Who were the only coaches to beat Saban and Smart in the same season, you ask? Well, one of those would be the previous LSU coach, of course. Orgeron did that in 2019, and Gus Malzahn pulled off that feat in 2017 … only to get stomped by UGA in the rematch in Atlanta.
Still, nobody accomplished that in Year 1. Three-loss season or not, that’d be quite the way for Kelly to kick off his tenure in Baton Rouge.
And a prediction … Georgia 35, LSU 17
I just think even with those lackluster moments from UGA this year, one thing has been constant. In big-time games, they show up. Against all 4 current Top 25 teams on that slate, the Dawgs showed up with bad intentions. After the way last year’s game played out, Smart will have his squad ready to roll from the jump.
On one hand, you could say LSU is perfectly fine playing with a deficit. This is the same team who had a second-half deficit in 7 of the 9 games it played against Power 5 competition. They clearly don’t mind trailing and relying on in-game adjustments to claw back.
But doing that against Georgia is a different beast. This is a team that’s gotten so used to being the hunted that it won’t blink if it jumps out to a 3-score lead in the first half. I’d expect Monken to get the ball out on the edges in the passing game to try and neutralize those LSU pass-rushers, but we could also see a lot of the north-south ground game concepts that were so effective for A&M against LSU.
Unlike last year, I don’t expect to see UGA struggle to get pressure, nor do I see this as a game in which that front 7 is gassed in the second half because it isn’t used to playing a 60-minute game. Smart has seen that movie before.
A different ending is in store for the Dawgs in Atlanta.